In my team, we do a form of 360 peer review feedback sessions once a quarter. Our company values honesty and transparency, especially when it comes to feedback. I have often been told that giving honest feedback, even if it is tough, is something the company values. I didn’t really understand why until recently.
Giving negative feedback is tough
No one enjoys giving negative feedback. Giving negative feedback, especially if your workplace does not have a framework to really handle this type of feedback, can open you up to confrontation, so most people avoid it.
What happens when a teammate really needs to be given feedback on how to improve?
What happens when that teammate is you?
Receiving feedback is liberating
This is something I didn’t understand until I was the subject of an incident in Slack, in which someone posted something negative about my work on a public channel. Something that was meant to be private.
It was real feedback. It was something I absolutely did mess up. But my teammate made the choice of not letting me know and venting about it to someone else privately instead.
That experience absolutely changed my view on giving and receiving feedback.
When negative feedback is needed
When someone makes a mistake at work, or when someone does actually need to be given negative feedback on something they missed, we often ignore it, depending on the team and the team’s OS.
Some teams are equipped with good tools for giving and receiving feedback, even when it’s tough; but in my experience, most team’s OS is not setup to give or receive negative feedback, so most people avoid giving negative feedback altogether.
What I see happen is typically either of these two scenarios:
1) You may provide this feedback to your boss, and your boss is then expected to give this feedback to the employee in question.
2) You vent to your coworkers about the person.
Option 1 sometimes works, but in my work-life, my bosses have always been too busy to follow-up with employees on issues raised during 1 on 1 meetings. This probably speaks more to workload and overall company OS, and that’s a post for another time.
In my experience, it is easier to go with option 2. It is immediately gratifying to vent the frustration in the moment, and tools like Slack, where you can have a private* conversation in seconds of something happening, facilitate this type of venting and back-channeling.
Why give negative feedback when venting to someone else is much easier and immediately gratifying?
*interesting anecdote about Slack: I was once an admin of a Slack community in which 90% of all conversations were private. As a Slack admin, you should be able to see metrics to determine how many messages are private vs. public. If most of your conversations are private, you may have a back-channel problem. As no surprise, said Slack community with 90% of conversations being private became quite toxic and had to be shut down.
When feedback is withheld
I have always been very confrontation-averse, so giving negative feedback is something I try to avoid as much as possible. I didn’t understand how giving someone feedback, even when it’s negative, is actually helpful to that person — until I experienced what it was like to not be given that feedback when I needed it.
To go back to the story of my teammate mistakenly posting something about me meant to be private in a public channel — I learned that I much rather be given that feedback, even if it’s tough to hear, than to not be given that feedback at all.
When feedback is withheld, the person not giving that feedback is making a choice for you. They are making the choice that you cannot change. They are making the choice that you cannot improve. That choice is not theirs to make.
Giving feedback, even if it is negative or tough, is a vote of confidence that you believe someone can improve.
A framework for negative feedback
Most people are reluctant to provide negative feedback because most teams do not have a framework for giving that type of feedback, even with things like 360 Peer Reviews in place.
Establishing the rules for providing feedback can be important in giving your team the right tools to have difficult conversations:
- Feedback needs to be constructive and actionable
“I don’t like foo” is not constructive or actionable feedback for a teammate, it sounds more subjective. “When you do foo, it causes bar to happen…” is more constructive and actionable.
- Suggest possible solutions
Don’t solve people’s problems for them, but suggesting a solution to a problem can be helpful, especially when you leave the solution open for someone to contribute to the solution.
“When you do foo, it causes bar to happen. What do you think about doing baz instead? Would you agree?”
Offering a solution helps frame the conversation, and asking someone if they agree opens them up to contribute to the solution or suggest something else.
- Assume positive intent
This is something we have been trying to embed in our team OS more and more. Many people default to feeling defensive when receiving feedback. Reminding yourself to assume positive intent from the person providing the feedback, you will be more open to the feedback and therefore more open to grow.
The joy of feedback
Feedback is an opportunity for growth, both for an individual and for the entire team. Providing constructive, actionable feedback is a vote of confidence in your teammate that they can grow. Ultimately the entire team will benefit from this growth, and if everyone is also constantly growing and improving, it is a net positive for the team.